by Panos Bletsos
Could it ever be possible for a footballing nation the stature of Italy to lose a European Championship final by four goals to nil and still emerge as one of the tournament’s winners? Of course it could – and it has. The Azzurri were NOT Euro 2012’s real losers, as Spain were not the lone winners.
As recently as two years ago the Netherlands won themselves many admirers across the globe by reaching the final of the FIFA World Cup for the very first time since their two consecutive showings back in the ‘70s. They only went down to Spain by that solitary Andrés Iniesta strike a few minutes before a penalty shoot-out after recording 14 straight victories on the road – they famously beat Brazil and sensational Uruguay in the process.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, they say, and that’s exactly what the Dutch did. Bert van Marwijk mostly stuck with the same crop of players and even injected some new blood into his squad (Jetro Willems, Kevin Strootman, Luuk de Jong) as the Oranje took Europe by storm – alas, only in the qualifiers. In spite of making it nine wins out of 10 (including a record 11-0 victory over part-timers San Marino), Sneijder, Van Persie, Robben and co. were merely a shadow of themselves in the finals losing all three of their group matches for the first time ever in a major finals.
As so often happens in such cases, the Dutch have turned against one another, the media (and, inevitably, Johan Cruijff) are blaming everybody and Van Marwijk quit less than eight months after prolonging his contract up to 2016. One of the short-listed pre-Euros title favourites, the Netherlands were arguably the biggest disappointment. But as soon as they get through a period of introversion they will only be bound for success. They have the style, they have the class, they have the players – and now they also have Louis van Gaal back at the helm.
France, England & Russia
More than a century ago, in 1907, Britain, France and Russia formed the Triple Entente, an alliance that stood up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire at the start of World War I, which the Allies eventually won. Forward to present day and switch to footballing terms, there is a general sense that all three of those nations are on the losing side.
After their disastrous 2010 World Cup the French tried to regroup. Jean-Pierre Escalettes resigned as president of the FFF and Laurent Blanc, who had led Bordeaux to four major trophies within just three years, took over from Raymond Domenech. The two-times European champions showed some signs of improvement and finished top of their qualifying group just barely ahead of Bosnia – Herzegovina. But the look on the faces of Les Bleus after their loss against Sweden sent them on collision course with Spain in the quarters said it all. A hands-down 2-0 defeat sent the French home, Blanc resigned and Noël Le Graët has to start from scratch – again…
England and Russia were also optimistic ahead of the final phase, although for different reasons. In Russia’s case, sanguineness was well-founded thanks to the quality of the squad, but they failed miserably against Greece in their final group game and sent crashing out of the tournament. One can’t help thinking that broken ties between the RFU and Dick Advocaat, who’d penned a deal with PSV Eindhoven as early as May, played a huge part.
A host of national sides changed their head coaches after Euro 2012, England made the switch ahead of the final phase. Roy Hodgson (and not overwhelming favourite Harry Redknapp, who was ironically shown the door by Tottenham a few weeks later) stood in for the resigned Fabio Capello as late as May 1. This particular development along with several high-profile casualties significantly lowered the bar of expectations, which could eventually benefit the Three Lions. Indeed, playing with a nothing-to-lose approach the English won a tough-looking group to make the last eight, but the more things change the more they stay the same: they were knocked out on penalties again, this time by Italy…
Tails Between Their Legs
England’s across-the-sea neighbours Ireland reached a major tournament for the first time in a decade, but the only thing they had to show for was perhaps their proud Green Army of fans, while a Sweden team featuring Zlatan Ibrahimović cannot be content with a last-place finish in their group. Co-hosts Poland and Ukraine nurtured ambitions of progressing to the knock-out stages, together with a compact-looking Denmark side, but all three failed to. However, their remarkable efforts must have left them with the same bitter-sweet taste the two losing semifinalists are trying to come to terms with. Both Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and indeed the fresh and exciting Germany cannot help feeling that this was a wasted opportunity for them to do even better.
So, Who Won?
The obvious answer would be Spain of course, but there are a number of other nations that may look back to their Euro 2012 campaign in satisfaction. Two years after their World Cup debacle and under the heavy shade of yet another match-fixing scandal Cesare Prandelli and Andrea Pirlo’s Italy proved that they are still a force to be reckoned with in the global game. While both in a transitional period the Czech republic and Greece finished among the top eight, but my tip for success in the near future would have to be Croatia, who threatened both eventual finalists Spain and Italy with early exits. Life without Slaven Bilić will indeed take some getting used to and Igor Štimac faces an uphill struggle to take his national side to Brazil in two years time against the likes of Belgium, Scotland and bitter rivals Serbia. Nonetheless, maybe the time for them to emulate their 1998 heroics is drawing ever closer.
HAVE YOUR SAY...Who do you think were the winners and losers from Euro 2012?
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